As I stood there at my wedding, next to Amy, the friend I’d chosen to give a speech about me, the friend I believed knew me best, preparing to read aloud a Gchat we’d shared five years earlier, I couldn’t help but feel a little panicked.
Amy and I had shared many conversations over the preceding decade, both online and off, from our earliest pings in journalism class about late-breaking high school sports news, to roadtrip tips, summer plans, loves, life decisions, and, most of all, so many pictures of bunnies. In and amongst these messages, there were comments I had made to her about Glory, the woman I had just married, and these were the comments I was about to read aloud in front of our friends and family. Presumably, they were good comments, but one never knows.
I didn’t feel any embarrassment for professing early feelings of affection, but rather, I felt embarrassed more for how I expressed just about anything over e-mail ever. In chats, I used terrible shorthand and slang, comments that in the moment seemed breezy and effortless, but upon closer inspection, died an excruciating death on the examiner’s table. Anytime I’d stumbled backward into the depths of my inbox, whether by intention or accident, I grimaced at who I was, how I conducted myself in conversation with friends, family, potential employers, professors, and the general weirdos out there in the internet. So, knowing full well the potential for complete mortification, I put on a half-smile, half-grimace, and we began to reenact our conversation.
me: have you heard of work spouses?
me: i guess it’s this thing where your’e intimate and close to people at work
over-sharey and secrets and everything
but nothing physical
so like a regular spouse, but you get paid
On August 2nd, 2004, I opened my very first Gmail account. I received an invite to the then-exclusive Gmail product at a time when a person had but five invites to hand out, causing us all to become very selective of just who got exclusive access to the newest email offering. When my brother mentioned that a friend of his had an extra invite, I just about jumped for it. I recall the one THOUSAND megabytes of storage they offered free of charge, along with the early promise of never having to delete anything ever again. Never mind that my e-mail at the time (email@example.com, backed up by firstname.lastname@example.org) was nowhere near full. This was my chance for a distinguished, adult e-mail account, something every 15-year-old needs. My days of quippy, smoothie-themed e-mail accounts were now behind me.
amy: oooh yeah yeah
are you developing one?
me: well, i think i’m developing a real relationship maybe
but i just tried to sneak a joke in on you
For the most part, Google’s promise has been upheld. I have never had to delete anything. The All Mail section of my inbox has some 43,000 messages covering the rise and fall of my first serious relationship, my departure for college, my entry into the entertainment industry, and my ascent from producing terrible sketch comedies to an Emmy-nominated daytime talk show. My inbox has my earliest friendships and fall-outs with those friends. It contains the way I antagonized my teachers and came close to suspension. The way I nagged my parents. And so much more. Unlike the box of notes I was passed as an 8th grader, this inbox was a two-way street of terribly punctuated communication on its way to becoming an archive of me learning how to interact with the world.
amy: ya devil
tell me about it
she’s very funny
more interesting than any one person has the right to be
and we have that eye contact thing
where you don’t really want to break away
So Amy and I read our lines from all those years ago. She chose a selection that foreshadowed the love of my life, my future Mrs., that was also filled with my own awkward turns of phrase and meanderings – a perfectly embarrassing dialogue which made for a charming moment. We got through our back-and-forth with laughter, and I was soon relinquished of my duties and everyone got to go back to enjoying themselves and the antics of the rest of the speeches. Yet, reenacting that conversation struck a chord in me, as I realized I could draw a line from that instant message exchange to standing in front of dozens of close friends and family, professing my feelings for my now-wife.
amy: magical thing
been hanging out a lot?
me: we had dinner last week
at work some hang outs
I know many people use Gchat on a daily basis for just about everything in their lives. At work, they message friends. On the weekends, they message coworkers. As far as Gmail and Gchat usage go, I’m not unique. In fact, I’ve since stopped using IM altogether, for fear of its distracting powers.
I also know many people use Gmail as their primary email account, and they have also used it for years, and they have also never had to delete anything. Some people have more emails than I do; some have less. But knowing that I started using it as a 15-year-old, in the midst of figuring out friendships and relationships and the impending Future, and that I have been steadfast in using it ever since, fascinates me. If one chat from five years ago could be summoned on my wedding night, to such a moving effect, what other chats or emails foreshadow my development?
me: she’s very busy
but maybe this weekend breakfast and farmers market, if she’s around
me: but i think it’s best not to force
this workplace thing is tricksy
What else could I draw lines to? In reconstructing my own life, would I see paths not taken? Conversations unfinished? Friendships undone?
In scouring through my inbox, and my interactions with the key players of my teenage years, would I begin to understand myself a little bit better?
We all have a perception of ourselves that is shaped by our memories. There are moments of my high school years that stand out to me that I’m sure I didn’t write about. There are others, no doubt as formative, that I did. One integral part of my personality that stretches as far back as my early Gmail days is my compulsive need to create. My first sent e-mail is to a friend setting up a day to shoot a short film, and to discuss starting a parody newspaper.
Within a month, I had pestered him with a series of good ideas. You can tell they are good ideas because I call them “semi-brilliant.”
Since then, I’ve created countless short films, music videos, comic strips, pilot scripts, animations, essays, and small business ideas. But – through it all – what was I expressing? Was it purely for attention? Was there some bigger aim?
I think about how we express ourselves now in a much more instantly gratifying way through Twitter and Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. We broadcast our present moment. We showcase what we’re viewing, eating, reading, thinking now. Where we’re walking while we’re Pokémon Going. How we’re dressing, feeling, living. Now.
But what about the produced projects? Do we say anything differently by taking time to create ideas? And what about the time spent talking about those ideas?
To that end, I’m putting on my archaeologist hat and excavating the first decade of my Gmail to see what artifacts I find, and to see if there truly is meaning in the minutiae.
I want to go back to understand better how I became me, so I’m going to dive into the pains and pleasures of growing up online in an attempt to make sense of the silliness that was my first ten years on Gmail.
In combing through the gigabytes, I hope to find growth, so I invite you to join me, as on the first Friday of each month, I post the recap of another year, including highlights of the excruciating e-mails that contain my firsts, my projects, my friendships, my failures (and abundance of failed flirtations), and see how it all plays into what became my future.
Also published on Medium.